I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhat looking past Wednesday’s matchup versus Minnesota. And with a possible, or should I say probable, Eastern Conference Finals’ preview against Cleveland about to take Friday night by storm, I was most likely not alone.
That did, however, go against something I’ve been preaching all season long:
An inferior opponent should never be overlooked, particularly when a potential letdown lurks in the background. That goes without saying for the players but it’s also our job to hold the team accountable each and every night.
Actually, who am I kidding, we’re not “reportedly” asking for a 5-year, $150 Million contract to do so. Wait, that’s the wrong team…moving on.
If you caught the game, you know full well that the Raps’ bad habit of playing down to their competition made a few cameo appearances. It’s these instances that make myself, and I’m assuming most of this audience, second-guess using the word “probable” when it comes to this team reaching such a level of postseason progression.
On the other hand, being that these lapses are happening far less frequently, not to mention the Raps’ knack for playing up to their competition as well, I’ll stand by my statement.
As for pre-game intrigue, this one did have the makings of a highly entertaining evening:
- “Canada Basketball Night”: It didn’t result in the crowd chanting for free pizza, or John Wall ranting about chicken sandwiches, but it did help put things into perspective beforehand. This country has come a long way since the days of Rick Fox and Bill Wennington being the only players in the league to hold Canadian citizenship back in 1995. Needless to say, the anticipation for Jamal Murray’s arrival will reach a fever pitch when March Madness strikes.
- Revenge factor: One could only hope that the Raps wanted payback after blowing an 18-point lead in their previous meeting right before the All-Star break only to eventually lose by five on Minnesota soil.
- More than meets the eye: Over the course of the last month, alongside that victory, the T-Wolves have beaten the likes of Boston, Memphis, Chicago and the Clippers. All five being playoff teams if the season ended today. With arguably the most enviable young core to build a roster with, it’s hard to argue against Minnesota skyrocketing up the Western Conference food chain in the coming years.
However, there is this:
When Karl-Anthony Towns was asked about himself, Andrew Wiggins and the club’s future, he said: “Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan weren’t able to do it by themselves. They had a great supporting cast and a great main cast.”
Considering TSN cut to his pre-game scrum in mid-question, I’ll try to give his response the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he meant it as if two of the league’s greatest players needed help then surely they will too. Though I’m tempted to say: slow down, big fella.
Nevertheless, with Towns and Wiggins scorching the Raps just before Valentine’s Day, the onus was on the home team to kibosh their previous onslaught.
By all indications, Towns will eventually become a perennial All-Star. He (along with Porzingis) is what every team is looking for in today’s NBA: A smooth-touch big man who isn’t afraid to bang inside while owning a guard-like skill set to effortlessly play a perimeter game. It really is a sight to behold. Anthony Davis will be welcoming a new peer group in short order.
Fortunately for Toronto, Towns couldn’t muster a repeat performance of his 35-11-63% line. His athletic and ball-handling ability was on full display, though, as he continuously showed why the Raps frontcourt (particularly Luis Scola and JV) have trouble keeping up with opposing stretch bigs. It could have been much worse if it wasn’t for his nagging foul trouble. But in T.O.’s defense, they finally started to play some semblance of help defense and remarkably held KAT to 38 percent from the field.
This could have been the game Casey experimented with implementing Patterson in the starting five. PP offers far more reassurance when having to guard more versatile options. Not to mention the potential to be much more active and disruptive in the paint:
Give him the starting job already yeeesh https://t.co/AS6Za0beIC
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) February 25, 2016
It was nice to see Patman reach 35 minutes but the regular season’s margin for error pales in comparison to that of the postseason. If the switch is in Casey’s plans, the window for not messing with continuity is closing with every game. Scola and PP both produce in spurts and there’s plenty to be said about what PP can do against opposing second units, but that’s not to say Scola can’t fill that void just the same. It’s time to at least attempt a switch.
As for Wiggins:
The comparisons to DeRozan are becoming more apparent as time goes by. Specifically speaking of Wiggins trying to improve in different facets of his game and becoming more versatile. He’s where DeMar was at in the beginning of his career in departments other than scoring. One category that AW is currently catching up quick in is Free Throws Per Game, and actually ahead of where DD was in his second year (DeRozan didn’t surpass the 5.3 mark until his 5th season). But you can now add another eight to DeRozan’s 8.4 average and season rank of third overall. And add another nine, which follows his outstanding 13 attempts in their last meeting, to Wiggins’s eighth overall rank and 7.4 average.
Last night did show another difference as well. While Wiggins resorted to wild mid-range shots in crunch-time, which put a damper on his hot streaks throughout the game, DeRozan was manipulating the defense. Even to the point of drilling two late threes which helped seal the win. He can thank Kyle Lowry for the setup, but DeRozan’s court awareness has certainly evolved. DeMar’s encouraging signs from behind the arc just keep growing, something Wiggins needs to eventually incorporate the same way.
Speaking of Lowry:
After Wiggins had a few choice words for Lowry after a “flagrant” foul, I have to imagine it was the very first time Wiggins was booed in his hometown. But it did put a few things back into focus. The hope that Wiggins will eventually suit up in a Raptors uniform, no matter how much of a longshot that thought may be, is still very prevalent among Raptors fans. It was fitting that K-Low was the one on the other end of the infraction. And in a way, made a statement of the here and now. This is a Lowry-led team that’s on the cusp of major progress, not a team that’s waiting for Wiggins’ arrival.
If that wasn’t enough to clue the remaining skeptics in, Lowry took over when the moment called for it. K-Low redeemed himself after a slow start with masterful guard play showing yet again his awareness of when to push the envelope and when to hold back. He capped off his night with 12 fourth quarter points. Most of which were of the dagger variety.
Can’t forget about Co-Jo:
Lowry can’t forget about him, either. It’s no secret that a large portion of Lowry’s off-ball success this season can be attributed to Joseph. In the past, a slow start by Lowry would exactly get the chance to be rectified, not in this fashion. If there was ever a game Joseph displayed every bit of Tony Parker’s teachings, I give you Wednesday’s relentless drives to the rim. All the while having the patience to set up shop and run the offense while his teammates get into a prime position to score. See Kyle Lowry.
And in case you’re looking for a friendly reminder of just how much of a steal his offseason signing was:
This is a reminder that Masai Ujiri traded Greivis Vasquez for 2 picks and the cap room to sign Cory Joseph.
All hail Masai.
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) February 25, 2016
The good news shall continue, but there’s also a bit of frustration to let out.
The opposite ends of T-Ross and JJ:
T-Ross has become a reliable component of this squad. That’s something we’ve all been waiting for and something I think we all can agree on. In the midst of another round of clutch 3-point shooting, the ejection heard across the city took place. Motioning to the Ref that you’re going to heave the ball at him (twice) might have been the wrong course of action. But the more I think about it, the more I think we all should be a little encouraged that he did. Discipline is what we ultimately want but when was the last time T-Ross played with that kind of emotion? We’ve always wanted him to be more engaged and stop being tentative, well, here’s another step towards his fire being lit.
At times, it did leave DeRozan as the one who had to check Wiggins, but just as Lowry’s ejection against the Kings earlier this season provided, having to step up at a moment’s notice only bodes well for the postseason. And DeMar accepted the challenge helping to hold Wiggins to only eight second half points.
One of the hidden storylines of this game was another opportunity for James Johnson to prove his worth. Despite displaying his knack for getting to the rim, he essentially came up lame. And in the grand scheme, this won’t help Patterson eventually get a starting nod, either. Still, I don’t think faith should be lost in what he can provide at any given time in the right matchup, especially on defense. Once again, a quality that will be useful come playoff time. Though Casey just might have written him out of that rotation already.
On a brighter note:
Friday night: If you have plans, cancel them. If you have to work, call in sick. If your fridge isn’t full stocked with tasty beverages, get on it. Don’t worry about cooking, either. Whichever take-out place should be your only food concern. And by the way, the Raps tied the franchise record with their ninth straight win at home. What better way to break it than against the team they’ll meet in the Eastern Conference Finals…See you there.